Kofi Asare Opoku: An Intellectual Whose Feet Are ‘Firmly Planted In The Ground’ (Part 1)

In thevideo, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JC2OzFoEqso&feature=youtu.be,a man is seen standing in front of a huge Onyina tree. 

He stretches out his arms as wide as they can go, trying to wrap them around the tree.

His arms don’t manage to enclose even one of the massive externally-growing branch-roots of the Onyina tree.

“You see?” the man tells his interviewer. “That’s why our African ancestors coined a proverb that says, ‘No single individual can embrace a baobab tree!’  In this case, the big tree happens to be an Onyina, not a baobab. But the meaning is the same: no single individual has all the answers to life”. In other words, no one person can build a nation. 

 The trees in the forest, if we listen attentively enough to them, will teach us that co-operation is the only way to go, the man implies. 

I am intrigued. Who is the sage being interviewed? The voice does sound familiar, but the video doesn’t immediately give me an indication of who he is.

I keep watching. And then the pen drops:  it is my old friend, Kofi Asare Opoku! 

In our early  post—independence  years, Asare Opoku, Fifi Hesse and Kwame Arhin were three of the young intellectuals produced by the University of Ghana who made a conscious effort to break out of the ‘Ivory Tower’ represented by the university. They befriended individuals who were not university-trained themselves but were curious about knowledge (such as myself).

It was a joy to sit at the feet of these young intellectuals, have a beer with them and listen to them talk. They argued about everything, including politics. They were neither snobs nor showoffs. They just exuded knowledge as if it were the very air they breathed. 

Alas, life eventually dispersed all of us and we mostly lost touch with one another. To hear and see Asare Opoku again was therefore a great pleasure. And, as ever, he was stimulating and full of wisdom.   

What he was saying in the video was that we, as human beings, do not pay enough attention to our environment. But those of us who grew up in forest areas, in particular, are fortunate enough to live among whose ancestors have been exposed to  trees and plants for thousands and sometimes millions of years. Our whole way of life and our beliefs have been shaped by the trees, herbs and plants that supported us in life. 

The verdant vegetation amongst which we live does not only give us food but – especially — medicine. They make sure that “we do not die!” unnecessarily. There is vegetation whose medicinal content is so powerful that our ancestors made sure they planted some around their gates and compounds so that if the need arose, the plants and herbs would be readily available. 

There are plants that can prevent bleeding from wounds; some plants also attract bees who produce honey – and honey also contains an anti-bleeding substance! It’s only recently that Western scientists have cottoned on to some of these healing substances of which forest dwellers have been aware for thousands of years. 

Asare Opoku says he bought a piece of land he calls ‘Anansekwae’ on the Akuapem hills four decades ago and decided that rather than cut down the trees and build a house on it, he would maintain it as a forest and add new plants to what was already there. Today, the farm has become a ‘forest town’ which he has named after the notorious hero/anti-hero of Ghanaian folk tales, Kwaku Ananse. 

Among the plants he’s cultivated is one of my own favourites — asaa (asowa in Asante Twi):  that unique and miraculous plant whose beautiful red fruits, once eaten, sweeten everything else that one eats — including bitter lemons. He knows the peculiar qualities of each plant, in the order of things, and he tries to find out the philosophical apothegms that the forest-dwellers crafted around them.

 Who is Kofi Asare Opoku?  Born in 1933, Asare Opoku was educated at the University of Ghana, Yale University (in the United States of America) and Bonn University (among others). 

 A past Administrative Secretary of the famous Institute of African Studies of the University of Ghana, Legon, Asare Opoku has published several books and contributed chapters to others. His articles in academic publications can be numbered in thousands. He’s also taught in many prestigious institutions abroad. 

Indeed, like that of the late Professor J H Kwabena Nketia, (whom he considers his mentor) Asare Opoku’s curriculum vitae reads like a book in itself. Yet he was nearly lost to academia at the beginning of his scholarly life because his family wanted him to become a Presbyterian priest, just like his father and grandfather before him!

Among Asare Opoku’s books are: Speak to the Winds: Proverbs from Africa, New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Co. (1975);

West African Traditional Religion, Singapore: Far Eastern Publishers (1978);

Healing for God’s World: Remedies From Three Continents, (with Kim Yong-

Bock and Antoinette C. Wire), New York: Friendship Press (1991);

Hearing and Keeping: Akan Proverbs. Pretoria: University of South Africa Press,

(1997); Togbe Adawuso Dofe: Mami Water in the Ewe Tradition, with Kathleen O’Brien

Wicker:  Sub-Saharan Publishers, Accra (2007); and Healing and Prophecy at Mehu: The Life and Work of Prophet Jenasman

Kwadwo Amoaforo, with Kathleen O’Brien Wicker and Margaret Naiandrina

Streetor. Sub-Saharan Publishers, Accra.

Prof. Asare Opoku was the Director of the Kwabena Nketia Centre for Africana Studies, African University College of Communications, Accra, Ghana, from August 2013 – September 2015.

He was also Visiting Professor, Africana Studies and Religious Studies, Lafayette

College, Easton, PA, USA. between January and June, 2011.

(To be continued)


From Cameron Duodu